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The Publisher and his Chocolate Factory

Louis RossettoSo what, you may ask, did your faithful BNET media blogger do today? He toured a chocolate factory; indeed, the only chocolate factory in San Francisco. Now, even though we cover a fairly wide range of companies in this space, I bet you couldn't have seen this one coming.

The occasion was to visit an old friend (and my once-boss), Louis Rossetto. Louis was the co-founder and Editor of Wired magazine; he also was CEO of Wired Ventures, when it included not only the magazine, a book publishing arm, and a TV production group, but a broad collection of creative websites, including HotWired, Suck, WebMonkey, The Netizen, HotBot, Wired News, and many others.

From a publishing perspective, he is easily the most important visionary of our time, in that he foresaw the digital revolution before it happened, and predicted, often in terms that conventional media executives found objectionable, that the entrenched old media companies would be brought to their knees by brash, young web pioneers who would invent a global network, rendering the previous communications technologies irrelevant.

Especially print. Especially newspapers.

One of the many ironies about this complex man is that Louis is and always has been, not a radical, but a deeply conservative Republican. He is by temperament much like a fellow I recall meeting 40 years ago, the then-publisher of the Chicago Tribune. Others have labeled Louis a Libertarian, but over the two years he and I worked closely together, he confided to me that he really wasn't. "Anarchist" would probably be a more romantic term, but he wasn't and isn't that, either. Except in a very important business sense, which ultimately is the point of this post tonight.

Over the past decade or so, it's become fashionable to describe technologies, strategies, and companies as "disruptive."

In the media business, utilizing his faith in the revolutionary potential of technology, Louis was the ultimate disruptive force. Today, anarchy reigns in the media world that, for the first half-century I was alive, seemed so entrenched and impregnable that no alternative voices would ever be able to find a way to be heard.

Now, everything has changed. The old media are in disarray, struggling to adapt and survive. The new media -- websites, bloggers, search engines, social networking sites, aggregaters, hyper-local services -- are moving into the vacuum left behind as newspaper after newspaper withers away to the point of irrelevancy.

Louis Rossetto was ultimately dethroned from his seat at the top of the Wired empire by a collection of schemers, conspirators, greedy investors, and selfish fools. In the process, they dismantled his hopelessly idealistic vision and carved it up into a series of iterations reflecting conventional wisdom.

But Louis never looked back on the wreckage these opportunists rendered of his dream. He did not become bitter. He used what extra wealth he had acquired from Wired to foster new startups, new ventures, new dreams. One of those, inevitably, drew him back into the hard-knuckles work of building a company, and that is TCHO, the innovative chocolate company I visited today.

TCHO is an industrial firm in the digital age. It is a vertically integrated (cradle to grave) production company resting on a deep understanding of the Information Age. Even in the most remote parts of this planet, where chocolate beans are grown, harvested, and fermented, satellite phones and email can be easily accessed. Thus the opportunity to become a chocolate magnate.

Louis has established the headquarters for TCHO on an old pier on San Francisco's waterfront. A pier where chocolate beans once were unloaded for the likes of Ghirardelli, which stopped manufacturing chocolate in the city four decades ago.

So, here we have a publisher, somebody still labeled by Wikipedia as a "journalist," building a manufacturing company, with a production line built out of a collection of equipment it purchased from a company going out of the business in Dresden, an organic innovator called McIntyre, and a patchwork quilt of tools from the coffee industry, sugar industry and other ancient crafts.

What Rossetto is doing is once again disruptive. He's demonstrating how to integrate the old industrial age with the new digital age. And -- he's still a publisher. He is building the company's brand online, promoting it online, and will ulimately sell his product (which, BTW, is delicious) online.

Think about this question. What is "media" in today's world, in your view? I would love to hear your comments (below).

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